Index, A History of the

You’re in for a treat—if you read this will book with full focus and close attention.

The title of this post is also the title of the book. Right away, you notice its form, and you realize that author Dennis Duncan pays close attention to detail—as you will, and as any self-respecting indexer must. This is not like so many of the non-fiction books that I review, books where the title is a marketing device and it’s the subtitle that tells you what it’s all about, Alfie. In this case the main title tells you—precisely and concisely—what you’re going to find inside. And the subtitle amplifies it, as it should: A Bookish Adventure from Medieval Manuscripts to the Digital Age. In this phrase too every word is carefully chosen.

By this point you may have gathered that Index, a History of the is a rather nerdy book. “Rather” may be an understatement—yes, it’s literate and oh-so-informative, but it’s also funny and even exciting. Since it’s important to read it slowly, I read it slowly, which meant that I kept itching to speed things up by skimming and skipping ahead! But I completely failed in that endeavor: whenever I tried to skim or to skip, Duncan grabbed me forcefully by the collar and forced me to keep reading with focus and interest rather than speed. So we’re talking about taking ten days rather than the usual two or three.

But it was well worth it.

continued after the break…

Before we go any further, let me observe that Duncan insists that the plural of index (in this sense, not in computer programming) is indexes rather than indices. This startled me and initially annoyed me, so I checked other indexers—and there seems to be unanimous agreement that Duncan is right. Oh well, I’ve always preferred indices, but apparently I’m mired in the world of ancient Latin.

What makes this book exciting is not so much the obvious but mundane issues that I’ve wrestled with myself in my own writing, such as the mechanics of assembling an index, or the choice of character-based or word-based order—though those topics are covered skillfully and thoroughly, just like everything else—not those but rather some issues I never would have thought of, such as humor in indexes and the political consequences of indexes. Who would have thought that a book index could be a major source of political satire, for instance? Or that it could have real-life consequences in more than one political campaign in both England the U.S.?

Duncan’s book is far more interesting than the one college course I took on a related topic: an Applied Math course with a title like (IIRC) Information Storage and Retrieval or something equally thrilling. Note that I wrote “Applied Math” here with initial caps because it was taught in the Applied Math department. On the last day of the semester I asked the professor (as tactfully as I could) why the course was considered “applied” math, when we had never learned a single application! It was all theory.

“Oh,” replied the professor. “It doesn’t mean math that has been applied; it means math that could be applied.”

I refrained from saying that all math could be applied.

But at least I learned something about databases and concordances—and indexes. This book, however, is a better way to do that.

Categories: Books, Linguistics